Mental Health and Spirituality

July 6, 2021Rachel Kasten

“My eyes are worn out from weeping; I am churning within…” Lamentations 2:11

I glance at the empty box of tissues next to my bed. Worn out from weeping, I am clawing my way back from the most severe depressive episode I’ve had in years and am finding comfort in an unlikely place: our sacred texts. While I maintain a strong Jewish identity, I haven’t felt much of a spiritual connection in years. I suspect it is the result of a decade of serving as a Jewish professional and rabbi’s wife; those peeks behind the curtain of Jewish organizational politics can force a certain level of detachment.

I am recently separated from my husband, trying to redefine who I am outside of my prescribed roles. I feel lost, overwhelmed. Not long ago, I found my way to the blog of Rabbi Ruth Adar (the “Coffee Shop Rabbi”). She writes extensively about her own mental health “to reduce the stigma around this very common illness, chronic depression.” One of the first Jewish texts I read that spoke to my own suffering was Psalm 6: “Have mercy on me, O God, for I languish; heal me, O God, for my bones shake with terror (Psalms 6:3).” Rabbi Adar surmises that, based on this psalm, King David himself must have been a fellow sufferer of depression. The most resonant of Rabbi Adar’s posts for me is “A Blessing for Medication.” I had never seen someone speak about medication for mental or emotional illness from a Jewish perspective. Reading her words made me feel supported and uplifted.

From there, I began seeking other ways to nourish myself Jewishly. Rabbi Jonathan Magonet discusses Naomi’s grief as seen in the first chapter of the Book of Ruth. I was particularly struck by his description of the loneliness and isolation Naomi felt despite being accompanied on her journey by Ruth. Depression can make one feel alone even when surrounded by support and love.

Later, I stumbled upon the podcast A Priest and a Rabbi Walk Into a Bar, co-hosted by Rabbi Michael Harvey and Father Bradley Evans. There is an episode focused entirely on spirituality and mental health, which manages to maintain the balance of scholarly analysis and humorous banter that characterizes the show. In the episode, Rabbi Harvey mentions that all clergy have a responsibility to use their pulpits (both physical and digital) to speak about mental health. Thankfully, it looks like many already are.

While the Mi Shebeirach prayer asks for a healing of the soul as well as the body, I’ve never felt completely comfortable being included for a non-physical condition. Perhaps I was worried that someone would reach out to offer comfort and I’d have to admit that I’m “only” recovering from clinical depression, not a broken leg. But if we are to truly erase the shame around mental illness, we need to be willing to consistently speak about health as fully encompassing both physical and mental wellness. Even though many synagogues state that names can be included for any type of ailment, perhaps clergy could make an effort to specifically mention mental illness the next time they lead their congregation in Mi Shebeirach. And, if you feel so moved, consider including me in your prayer: Rachel Leah bat David v’ Tovah.

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